This is the first Peter Carey novel that I have actually read – it s surprising because living in Australia he is such a cultural identity, so well known and his works well known, that I was surprised when I thought about which of his other books I has read….and then even more surprised when I came up blank. I actually know Carey’s work more through films (Oscar and Lucinda) and the media (discussing all his books and private life!).
So when Chemistry of Tears cam out I was determined to read it. I baulked at the $40 price tag for the book in the bookshop – I know, I know, it is a hardcover book, but $40. And now Amazon.co.uk does not deliver to Australia with super saver delivery any more I don’t even have the option of online ordering (in any case Carey’s book is not published in the UK until April). So my dilemma was resolved when I found the book amongst new titles at my local library and immediately snapped it up.
The concept of the story grabbed me straight away. The storyline is set in two time periods – current day with Catherine mourning the death of her secret lover and colleague at London’s Swinburne Museum, and the 18th century with Henry Brandling who has commissioned a mechanical duck from a German clockmaker as a way to save his son from illness.
Catherine is a horologist – a conservator of clocks and as a remedy to deal with her grief she starts on an important restoration project – the restoration of Brandling’s mechanical duck. So we see the construction and reconstruction of the mechanical duck through different eyes and time periods. In Brandling’s time when machines and engines were just starting to emerge and the first realisations of fear and wonder that these machines held for people – how far would they go, could they replace and even perfect real living things.
In Catherine’s time when we see machines for what they are now and the wonder that they could have ever been considered anything close to living or spiritual.
Catherine’s description of her world “It was a beautiful world we lived in all that time, SW1, the Swinburne museum, one of London’s almost-secret treasure houses. It had a considerable horological department, a world famous collection of clocks and watches, automata and other wind-up engines, If you had been there on 21 April 2010, you may have seen me, the oddly elegant tall women with the tweed hat scrunched up in her hand. I may have looked mad, but perhaps I was not so different from my colleagues – the various curators and conservators – pounding through the public galleries on their way to a meeting or a studio or a store room where they would soon interrogate an ancient object, a sword, a quilt, or perhaps an Islamic water clock. We are museum people, scholars, priests, repairers, sandpapers, scientists, plumbers, mechanics – train spotters really – with narrow specialities in metals and glass, textiles and ceramics. We were of all sorts, we insisted even while we were secretly confident that the stereotypes held true.”
The story is beautiful, that blend of art and science that always draws so many questions about where we are and how we see the world. The book and its concepts stay with you for weeks after, with you thinking what does that mean, or seeing a new connection or layer that was not evident earlier. Carey also writes beautifully, and if I am honest, sometimes a bit too artfully. I found I could never fully sink into the characters of Catherine and Henry because I was always reminded of the writing, the pace often becomes awkward, with sentences abrupt. I am not sure if this was Carey’s intention, but a number of times I found myself just annoyed by this.
Three and a half stars